Martin Luther and OCD

Martin Luther and OCDIn honor of the upcoming Reformation Day, I thought we would take a moment and look at the largely unknown struggles of one of the great Protestant reformers, Martin Luther. Even if you’re not a Protestant, I think it’s always interesting to learn when a famous historical figure struggled with a neurological disorder. It’s a great reminder of how people with great struggles can still accomplish great things and alter the course of history.

Did you know that many historians today believe Martin Luther had a form of OCD?

A Brief History

 

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Image from Martin Luther’s Goodreads Author Page

Martin Luther was born in a small town, Eisleben, Saxony (now, southeast Germany) in 1483, according to Biography.com. His father, a common miner, wanted him to attend school to become a lawyer, but when he experienced a severe lighting storm while out walking on the road, Luther made an oath that if he were spared, he would become a monk. After the storm subsided, he kept his promise, much to his father’s disapproval, and began a monastic life.

While studying and striving to live rightly, however, Luther found no peace. The awareness of his sins tormented him endlessly. Christianity.about.com says, “Even after his ordination in 1507 he was haunted with insecurity over his eternal fate… .” School Psychologist Files reports, “Luther described feelings of “fleshly lust, wrath, hatred, or envy against any brother,” which constantly ‘vexed’ him and would not leave no matter how hard he tried to block them from his mind. He also experienced periods of “blasphemous” thought that left him confused and disturbed….” Beyond OCD’s article, “Scrupulosity: Blackmailed by OCD in the Name of God,” says, “When he prayed, Luther was obsessed with images of ‘the Devil’s behind.'” I’ve heard it reported that he went to confession so often he annoyed the life out of the priests.
And yet, Martin Luther was one of the most monumental Reformers of his time, and his most well-known lesson was on God’s grace. How does one go from thinking about the devil’s butt to being an usher of change in the church as we know it…and doing it all to help others find freedom from sin, of all things?

What is Scrupulosity?

Psych Central’s article, “Scrupulosity: When OCD Targets Your Religious and Moral Values,” describes scrupulosity as a type of OCD in which individuals feel constantly sinful and impure, or feel hyper-responsible for keeping moral standards. Where most people can make a mistake or do something wrong, feel guilty, repent, and move on, people with this kind of OCD can obsess not only over actions, but thoughts as well. Over and over again.
The OCD Center of Las Angeles reports on the origins of documented scrupulosity. “One of the first documented references to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) was in a 1691 sermon by Bishop John Moore of Norwich in which he discussed men and women who were overwhelmed with unwanted thoughts, and tormented by feelings of guilt and shame over what he described as ‘religious melancholy.'” Apparently, the people would confess the same sins repeatedly throughout the day, returning to confession three or four times to confess the same sins every time.
Those who have OCD can relate, and since OCD is characterized by intrusive, unwanted thoughts, it’s all too easy to imagine the hell Luther was living in. Reading about and being convicted of his sins in the Bible, Luther knew he was sinful, but had no way to move on, no way to escape. The OCD took his thoughts of his sin and ran them through his head on repeat, so to speak.

Not a Good Place

 The environment Luther was living in was also unhelpful to his situation. Just as taking a child who struggles with hand washing and giving him a pamphlet that talks about the dangers of not washing hands will undoubtedly make his OCD less manageable, so it was Luther in his world.
At the time, the Roman Catholic Church was heavy handed on the preaching of “faith plus.” You needed faith in Jesus to get to Heaven…plus good works. “Indulgences” were a hot commodity of the day, where individuals were told that if they would pay a certain amount of money, they could have access to grace through the admittance to a supposed relic of some kind. The more you paid, the greater your atonement for either yourself, or a dead relative stuck in purgatory. History Channel’s article, “Martin Luther and the 95 Theses,” reports that indulgences were being sold during his time to update a church building – the more the people paid, the more money the corrupt leaders had.
Not only were indulgences a hot comodity, but the History Channel also reports, “In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church taught that salvation was possible through ‘good works,’ or works of righteousness, that pleased God.”
For someone who struggles with the constant nagging of OCD about not only wrongs done, but sinful thoughts, being told you can “earn” your way back to Heaven through good works and the right prayers is a one-way ticket to the looney bin. I can speak from experience when I contest the awful feeling of needing to repent of the same sins over and over again…even when the thoughts I confessed weren’t true sins, but manifestations of the OCD.
So, stuck in a dangerous place of anxiety, fear, and intrusive thoughts and images, what did Luther do? The better question is, what did God do?

Out of the Darkness of Sin, and into the Light of Grace

Luther had the great privilege of access to the old texts and the ability to read, something many of the common people lacked in Europe during that time. Luther delved into the Bible and into writings, such as those of the early Saint Augustine, and resurfaced with knowledge that would not only change his walk with God, but that of millions of other Christians over the expanse of time.

Scripture did not require the good works that the Roman Catholic Church of the time was insisting upon. There were no indulgences to be purchased, no good works that could earn the way to Heaven. It had been already finished completely by the work of Jesus Christ in His life, death, and resurrection. There is a reason Christ uttered the words, “It is finished,” up on the cross as He died (John 19:13).
In the Ligonier article, “Justification by Faith Alone: Martin Luther and Romans 1:17,” R.C. Sproul describes Luther’s discovery of this freedom from his weight of sin.
“And so Luther said, ‘Woa, you mean the righteousness by which I will be saved, is not mine?’ It’s what he called a justitia alienum, an alien righteousness; a righteousness that belongs properly to somebody else. It’s a righteousness that isextra nos, outside of us. Namely, the righteousness of Christ. And Luther said, ‘When I discovered that, I was born again of the Holy Ghost. And the doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through.’”
The concept of grace alone by faith alone is far too great to describe in this simple blog post, but the link above to Ligonier’s website has some amazing information if you want to read more. For now, suffice it to say that Martin Luther’s world was changed.
For those who struggle with OCD, we know that immediate deliverance from our unwanted and intrusive thoughts isn’t realistic. But there can be freedom. It just takes time. I don’t struggle with the repetitive thoughts and mental confessions of sin to the same degree I once did. Are they gone? No. But through constant reminders of God’s goodness and grace, I’m beginning to find peace in places I never could before. I think Martin Luther captured the sentiment perfectly when he said.

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!” -Martin Luther

He doesn’t say your sins won’t be thrown in  your face. What he does say, however, rings true. When we are reminded of our sins, we are free to accept it…and then point it towards the immeasurably vast love of God.

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” –2nd Corinthians 5:21

 What do you think of Luther’s struggle with OCD? Have you or someone you know struggled with it? Please share in the Comments Box below! You never know how your experience might help someone in the future. If you’re interested in receiving updates on future blogs, as well as other free information on life with neurological disorders, just sign up for my free email list.

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